Mopar Memories, 1960-2003
I've been around Mopars for as long as I can remember. From the days of the old Dodge Dart wagon that my dad used as not only a daily driver, but also a family vacation vehicle, through the years of my Mopar muscle and "fun" cars, to my current Mopar. The memories of those old Dodges and Valliants that ran us around to just about every function a kid can attend and then some are still vivid in my mind.
I can clearly remember my dad, loading up the old Dart wagon for trips from Connecticut to Maine. Keep in mind that we made these ventures several times a year, and usually, for two weeks in the summer. "Loaded" was a literal term for us. There were four people in that car, with the back stuffed, junk on the roof at times, and whatever we could squeeze in between, including a dog. That Dart had a 170 slant-six engine, and with the 70 mph speed limits of the time on major highways and interstates, it literally struggled and chugged up the long hills on I-95. Dad always loved those "three on the tree" models too. There were many downshifts into second to make 55 or 60 on the long hills. There are probably pistons and engine parts in some remote junkyard somewhere that are still screaming in pain from those trips. But still, that old car served us well. This was most certainly the start of my love of Mopars.
Mom, or "Mario" as some called her, drove a two-door Mopar light green Valiant with — you guessed it — a slant six and three-on-the-tree. But this car had the bigger 225, and she quickly learned how to used those additional ponies. Trouble is, she also knew how to go through clutches and to this day, I think my vocabulary of expletives came from listening to my dad replace the clutch and pressure plate on at least one occasion. I can only assume that I was sequestered to my room during later clutch jobs after my initial education on "colorful" words and phrases.
Mom was a master at banging around the back roads at breakneck speeds. Her shifting was always timed perfectly to provide maximum torque to the rear wheels for just about any circumstance. To this day I am amazed that this is the same woman who now drives a Ford Taurus four-door sedan like it was a new mother pushing a baby carriage with bad wheel bearings (of course, she denies any of these claims to this day).
After the thrill of driving slant-sixes all those years, my dad splurged and bought a brand-new 1969 Dodge Coronet wagon. This was in 1970 and it was a leftover. I can still vividly remember when he brought it home, as we crawled all around inside it checking it out. Rest assured, his pride popped buttons off his chest with the V-8 power packed under its hood. This beauty sported a 318 with a Carter 2V carburetor. It was cherry, and even though it only had the small block 318, it moved that wagon around quite well, considering its weight. This wagon was now officially dubbed the "family vacation car" and use it we did. But now on trips to Maine, instead of my dad cringing to the sound of a whining slant-six up those long hills, he emitted a quiet smirk and simply pressed the accelerator further down toward the floor. The wagon responded in kind, hurling us up and down to our vacation bliss. This was until my mom emitted hisses of displeasure at the speed he was traveling.
Fast-forward a bunch of years. His youngest son, (me) needed a car. Luckily, the timing was perfect for me, as he was getting ready to dump the wagon because he had already purchased other cars for both he and mom. This was my first car, and it was great. Think about it a new 17 year-old driver behind the wheel of several thousand pounds of iron and steel, propelled through the stratosphere by a V-8. God bless my dad. I don't know how he did it, especially after I blew the transmission (that's a long story though). Oh, did I forget to mention the time I wrecked the left front fender too?
By this time, my love of Mopars was at a fever pitch. Although I had to dump the Dodge wagon for a more fuel-efficient econo-box daily driver, it wasn't long before my next conquest rolled effortlessly into the driveway.
I know that behind that "parental frown" on my dad's face, there was a pleasant grin when I rolled into the driveway with a 1969 Chrysler 300 Convertible. I was lucky enough to grab it for about $1500 from an acquaintance. The 300 had some under body rot (mainly in the floor pans and trunk), but otherwise, it was a beauty. Nothing that some sheet metal, pop-rivets and undercoating couldn't fix. Under the hood was a 440 cid with a Carter 4-barrel carburetor. It ran great, and 90+ mph on the highway was a "comfortable" speed in this hulk. The original convertible top was in excellent condition, as was the interior. After a few weeks of ownership of this baby, my perception of my dad's possible displeasure with this beast was put to rest, when he asked to take it for a ride on a warm summer day. With the top down, I watched the old man take off down our quiet street with a clear look of pleasure on his face. A short while later he returned, tossing the keys back to me with the look of a 17 year old who just returned from the prom with a hot date. The 300 was in!
My wandering eyes spelled the end to the 300. I saw and ad in a local car and bargain rag that caught my attention. Someone was selling a 1967 Dodge Coronet R/T and I had to see it. Although it had a bashed rear-end, some pre-purchase hunting at junkyards secured the parts I needed and the R/T became another fixture in the driveway — along with about 3 other brothers and sisters bearing my name on the titles. So, the 300 had to go in favor of the newest addition to my family, considering its propensity to rusting.
It's a long story of restoration on the R/T, but in summary, I had the rear end damage fixed, soldered a patch on a leaking fuel tank, and had the vehicle painted in its original color, which was a burgundy/red. A set of 70 series "Redline" tires filled out the corners, and after cleaning, a tune-up and a custom dual exhaust system, I was on the road. This car also had a 440 — 4V carburetor, but it was clearly built for quarter-mile results. I would guess the rear-end was a 4-11 or something close, with the Dodge "limited slip" option. Prior to installing the redlines, this sucker would spin the tires off the rims. On one occasion, I had just finished tuning it up and took it for a quick spin on our street. Starting from the bottom of a gentle hill toward the house, I mashed the accelerator to the floor at about 10 mph and the rest is a blur. The posi-traction black strips, each about 20 feet long and several sets of them, told the story. The Dodge jumped to life and before I knew it, I had to nearly skid to a stop at the end of the road. Mom did some yelling immediately thereafter about "skidding" on our street, and although I was in trouble, I excitedly corrected her by saying "skidding that wasn't skidding that was a bunch of hole shots!"
But alas, being a young man and full of testosterone, my decision-making skills were compromised, and the R/T ended up being sold to purchase a motorcycle. This is something that I have regretted ever since, and I've never seen another R/T like that one since.
Marriage and kids came next, and it appeared to spell the end of my Mopar fun years. There were the family econo-boxes, a Jeep Wrangler (well, sort-off a Mopar), and my wife's Aerostar extended van, which we still own. But the Mopar flame was still burning inside, although partially quenched by years of financial restriction. Plus, there was the purchase of an old Travel Trailer for camping outings, and other not-so-exciting stuff.
I couldn't end this story here, however. You know that old Mopars never die — they just come back as newer Mopars. Sitting in my driveway right now is my 98 Dodge Ram 1500 Club Cab SLT/Lariat pickup. Even though it's not sporting a 440, the 5.9 V-8 is plenty enough fun for me. I've jammed some goodies on the truck lately, including a cat-back dual exhaust system, diamond plate tool, box, and more recently, a Jacobs Electronics High-Energy ignition system, which I am currently evaluating. My wife calls it "my baby," and she's not too far off the mark. You see, not everyone understands the "Mopar feeling." To me, these vehicles, starting from the very first one I ever drove, assumed their own personalities and anyone who is into cars knows that jaunting around town or on the open road in "just a car" isn't fun at all. You know what I mean. To us, it's not just something that gets us from "Point A to Point B," but rather, it's part of us, something that reflects our personalities, and makes us feel good inside.
So, take care of your Mopar, and give it plenty of love and TLC. Years from now, you'll look back on that car, truck, van or whatever, and it will make you smile. All mine still do (I'm smiling right now — I promise!).